Tips for volunteer engagement
April 20, 2022 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on an all-volunteer community project (tool library) and am looking for tips or resources on engaging volunteers, especially when everyone is a volunteer.

This part has been hard! I know it will continue to be a big project (hopefully eventually we'll be able to pay someone to do some of it) but I'm hoping to crowdsource some thoughts and resources from you all in your experience both organizing volunteers (or activism organizing) and being a volunteer yourself. A lot of resources around volunteer engagement presuppose a larger organization with paid staff.

Things I'm trying to get thoughts on (not an exhaustive list):
- Tips for engaging new volunteers in meaningful enough ways to retain them, harnessing enthusiasm, making it more accessible to get more involved
- Organizing volunteer efforts (weve been trying workgroups with mixed success)
- Dealing with ebbs and flows of availability and energy
- Group communication options to keep everyone in the loop without being overwhelming (right now we have a kind of out-of-control discord server)
- Best practices for meetings (like, specifically how an all- volunteer meeting might differ from an office meeting)
- Dynamics of relinquishing control to new folks (I will be the one relinquishing, lol-- help me do it!)
- Preventing burnout

Big question, I know-- but you all are smart people.
posted by geegollygosh to Human Relations (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Here’s my advice on volunteer meetings, in no particular order:
1. Set aside some time before or after the actual “business” part of the meeting for people to visit. People who want to socialize can use that time for that purpose, and you can keep focused during the business section. People who aren’t interested in socializing can attend only the business part.
2. Have an agenda, share it ahead of time, and stick to it. Estimate how much time for each topic, and try to stick to that. Otherwise either your meetings can run long, or stuff at the end might not get the attention it deserves.
3. Use a “parking lot”. That is, if off-topic comments or questions arise, make note of them for later.
4. Encourage people to “step up or step back”. That is, encourage quiet people to take part, and discourage people from hogging the floor.
5. If needed, consider having turns limited to talking for X amount of time.
6. This isn’t always needed, but consider having a “stack”. That is, someone keeps a list of who wants to talk, and calls on those people in turn.
7. Be a stickler for the agenda and not letting people go off on tangents or talk too long. Yes, it makes you into a hard ass. But they will be glad to have productive and efficient meetings that end on time.
posted by NotLost at 7:20 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Here's my experience as a volunteer.

We are there because we support the goals of the organisation and because we want to socialise and have fun. (Most of us do have full time jobs and families after all)

In my situation we work 3 hour shifts with a whopping 30 minute break in the middle to talk a lot of crap and have fun. But the other 2.5 hours are serious work, no messing around.

Personally I like a good structure and I don't mind taking turns doing the horrible jobs. I had a supervisor who was always tiptoeing around us volunteers because I guess she didn't want to chase us away. She'd say things like "if you don't mind can you please do xyz but you don't have to". I had to tell her one day "we are here to work, don't ask us what we should do, just tell us what to do, just delegate the tasks and we'll do them"

Where I'm at communicating outside of work is done by email. Email is the lowest common denominator. You won't get half the oldies I work with to even understand Discord nevermind use it
posted by McNulty at 11:06 PM on April 20

I highly recommend Dean Spade's workshop series for Barnard on building capacity. (I linked #4 but you can easily dig around in the video archive to find the rest). It is specifically for mutual aid efforts but lots of stuff that will be relevant to a tool library project!
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:41 AM on April 21

I had a Goldilocks journey to find the "just right" community group to volunteer with when I first moved to a new city. I think about this a lot.

One was too rigid. New volunteers had a rigorous on-boarding process but I felt like I was just a new cog to be slotted into the machine and that I wouldn't be able to bring any creativity to the project. The group founder was certainly dedicated but terrible at relinquishing control.

One was too loosey-goosey. Meetings were free-form, the founder of the group welcomed new ideas but there was little support for making things happen.

One was just the right amount of flexible and structured. There were existing projects to slot into, with definite tasks to do, but also opportunity to suggest new projects and the support and trust that a new volunteer could lead it. There was a designated note-taker so there was a record of what was discussed, decided and who committed to doing what. We had dinner at every monthly meeting which underscored how volunteer time was valued (I know food is harder in the era of covid).

As a side suggestion, while meeting facilitation techniques such as the stack can be helpful, it may also irritate some folks who are used to a different meeting style. You will have many Goldilocks with different preferences and it might be helpful to have an anonymous survey (Google forms) every few months to check in on your volunteers, gauge their needs and wishes, and adjust.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:53 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

My partner and I currently having two very different volunteer experiences, so we had a few conversations about this.
1. Say “Thank you”. Often. If it’s a shift work – before every shift. Don’t forget to appreciate the “back office” people! I recently got a hand-written note from my volunteer coordinator thanking me for my time. A small thing, but really mattered. (Everyone got one, as this is her job, but I still appreciated the time it took to write them.)
2. Allow for different levels of engagement – if someone wants to commit 1 hour / week – fine. Someone wants to work 20 hours / week – fine. Both are appreciated. Don't be demanding more and more time from everyone.
3. As far as communication – in addition to the weekly newsletter my organization also has a white board through which “urgent” messages for the day/week are communicated.
Good luck, and thank you for volunteering.
posted by Dotty at 5:59 AM on April 21

I have been summoned (that is, someone MeMailed me to suggest I might be interested in this Ask, and I am). I am literally writing a book right now about volunteer-driven collaboration (specifically in open source software, but some lessons are more widely applicable). I blog about this topic; the link is in my profile and the Advice category may be helpful to you.

You mentioned that the project you're working on is a tool library. I'm guessing this means that you'll be looking to engage volunteers from different socioeconomic classes. You may find Betsy Leondar-Wright's book Missing Class useful; it discusses pitfalls that often occur when volunteers from different US classes try to work together, and how to mitigate them in recruitment, discussion process, etc.

Another org that was very good at volunteer engagement, figuring out what people could do and giving them tasks and empowering them, organizing them into teams, etc. was the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. I'm pretty sure their playbook is available somewhere though I haven't dug it up yet.

I want to build on what a few others have said in this thread... Different volunteers have different motivations. Some are there to advance the goals of the movement. Some primarily want to socialize and have fun -- to hang out with existing friends, or to make new ones. Some are inherently interested in the specific tasks they could do (like hobbyist woodworkers who are happy to have a reason to do it). Some aim to do community service as a résumé item. Some have their own idea of what everyone else ought to be doing and see an opportunity to sway everybody to their agenda. And some people crave the experience of being part of a high-functioning team -- something they're not getting at home, school, or work -- and find it in a volunteer effort.

The faster you can learn to assess why a volunteer has turned up, the better you can tune your task suggestions, structure different communication/meeting invitations, etc.
posted by brainwane at 10:09 AM on April 21 [4 favorites]

I was the paid staff at a tool library for a while, which meant I was basically getting paid a little bit to do what you're doing. (-: I tried during my tenure to increase volunteer engagement, starting from almost nothing. It was hard!

A few thoughts:
- Make it easy to commit. Want to sign up for a shift? You can do it on the paper calendar by the desk, or the online registration thing. You can do some training now or at the start of your shift. When your shift is over, I'll ask if I can put you on the calendar for the same time next week. You can also drop in whenever you're available because we can usually use the help... but if I can get you to put it on your calendar now, then when next weekend rolls around and you're considering whether you want to go to the tool library or just sleep in, the decision is already made.
- Define some roles. Some people are happy to show up and just do whatever you need, but others find it helpful to know in advance what they can do, what the time commitment is, and what skills they'll need to apply. Be prepared to have flexibility and room for growth in the roles, too.
- Pair up volunteers and get them to train each other. I knew someone at a bike collective who occasionally brought in a big group of engineering students doing community service. She would teach a few of them how to do something, then have them teach the next few, and so on. It works with smaller numbers too - train one person to run the front desk, then have them train the next person who comes in wanting to volunteer. You personally don't have to pass your skills and responsibilities straight to every new volunteer, and it's often better if you don't. Keep an eye out to make sure all the information is being conveyed accurately, of course! But letting new volunteers be "the trainer" can give them a greater sense of engagement/ownership and also helps them test and solidify their own skills. Plus it means the new volunteers are a little less likely to look to you as the one true authority and source of all wisdom.
- Communication tools depend a lot on the preferences of your volunteers. You might consider identifying some of the people you want to recruit as core volunteers and asking them what they would find easiest. Some groups thrive on an email list, others are full of people who never check their email but are 100% available via Signal.
- Different people have different expectations of what "a meeting" looks like; getting everyone on the same page at the beginning is valuable. Lots of governance models and meeting styles can work, but it helps if you choose one and explain it to new volunteers so they understand the norms and expectations around how they can contribute and what their rights and responsibilities are in a meeting.
- Dotty is right about the importance of expressing your appreciation - and much like what brainwane says about the different reasons people volunteer, keep in mind that different ways of expressing gratitude work for different people. Some want to hear that they helped people, others want to hear that they did a good job, and others want a pizza party.
- It is excellent that you are already thinking about preventing burnout. Make it part of your org's ongoing discourse / strategic planning / whatever, because burnout can sneak up on you, especially when you're too busy thinking about how to keep the org running. Take a look at brainwane's excellent Volunteer Responsibility Amnesty Day if you haven't already; there are some good articles linked at the bottom of the page. Plan for how you will hand off responsibility, and how you will ensure that whoever you hand that responsibility to ALSO makes a plan of their own. Know that you can step away if you need to, that people will often step up when they see a void, and that it's ok if they don't - nothing lasts forever, and it's sometimes better to let a project die or go temporarily inactive than to keep it running with frustrated, burnt-out volunteers.

brainwane's point about understanding the reasons people volunteer is excellent. I wasn't particularly good at it, but it became really apparent to me that you do better at volunteer retention when you understand what your volunteers want, what they're good at, who they do or don't work well with, and how to connect all of that to place people in the roles where they will succeed and feel useful.

Best of luck! I love tool libraries and loved being part of one - I hope you have as much fun with it as I did. (-:

If you haven't already, do check out the Tool Libraries Google Group and maybe post your question there, too!
posted by sibilatorix at 2:06 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone!! Lots of great perspectives and info. *Love* the worksop by Dean Spade, I'd read Mutual Aid but found this more useful. Will check out the books and blogs posted, they all seem very relevant.

sibilatorix, I think you pointed me to the Tool Libraries Google Group last year! But it's such a helpful resource.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:03 PM on April 21

Do not under-estimate the power of food and friendship! Bringing food to meetings and volunteer shifts, or eating food afterwards just to socialize makes a HUGE difference in volunteer engagement. Folks are more likely to show up, have a good time, and come back for more. Something magical happens when you share food with other people, especially with folks you share values and goals with.

I think the largest resistance to food at volunteer organizations is that it feels indulgent and silly to spend money on - it's absolutely not! Your org is fueled by volunteers, so fuel the volunteers. The cost of a few pizzas is 1000% worth it.

I love the other comments about meeting structure and Dean Spades workshop series.

Some strategies I've seen be at least semi-successful:

- Assign each new volunteer an experienced volunteer for the first X months of their involvement. Set a basic requirement, like checking in by phone once a month with a few sample questions to see how things are going, and being their point person to ask questions. Have a coordinator for this project to both play matchmaker, and do any missed calls if the experienced volunteer doesn't do them, which inevitably will happen about 30% of the time.

- Make visible charts about accomplishments in common areas. You can have a slowly filling up wrench with your metrics (number of tools lent, funding raised, etc). It's nice to have a visual reminder that even if no one does the dishes, you're still collectively getting shit done. :)

- Have seasonal group volunteer events that are designed to not require any training, coinciding with any volunteer orientations or onboarding events. Seasoned volunteers will probably not want to organize the giant rolling cart of miscellaneous screws or paint the walls, but new volunteers love this sort of thing because they can just show up and get started on being helpful right away. For events like these, you may just get folks who are interested in volunteering once or twice, and that's OK - you brought people together and got shit done, which is why you're doing what you're doing.

Good luck! Organizing a tool library sounds like a lot of fun, and also a lot like cat herding :)
posted by Sleepy-Succulent at 9:16 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

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